A Gift to the Third Century

Vermont Public Radio Commentary
by Chester H. Liebs

© 1999 by Chester H. Liebs, Aired 12/20/99
Made possible by: The Alma Gibbs Donchian Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont

If you had to make a list of Vermont’s special places, what would they be? I was faced with just this question almost thirty years ago when I was asked to develop a survey of the State’s historic treasurers. Some people at the time thought it would be a no brainer. “List the white clapboard and brick villages with town greens, like Newfane, Woodstock and Chelsea, add the State’s hundred plus covered bridges, and the job would be done in a few months” they said.

On the way to these picture-postcard places, I constantly came across evidence that preparing the list would not be that simple. For example, one day I discovered a granite-columned church in Barre that looked as if it belonged on a piazza in Italy. No wonder, it was built by Italian immigrant stone carvers in the image of churches from the old country. A trip to Swanton revealed that the first Vermonters, the Abenaki, we're still living there; while in Burlington’s Old North End I came upon an old German social club, a French Canadian Church, and a Synagogue. The evidence was quite clear--contrary to the national stereo-type of the laconic Yankee saying ayup-- in reality Vermonters were a varied lot.

And then there were the farms with their barns: ancient field barns, bank barns with high drives, round barns, modern barns, great volumes of timber-framed space, the agricultural cathedrals of the landscape.

Factories too. A row of gable-roof, slate covered buildings in Brattleboro where the world-famous Estey Parlor organs were once produced; the carving sheds of Barre where skilled craftsman transformed Vermont granite, not only into funerary monuments, but the stone blocks and columns for beautiful buildings; and the great textile mills ranged along the Winooski river in Winooski-- all suggested that Vermont was not just a bucolic backwater. The industrial revolution reached here as well.

And there were cities, albeit small ones, with fascinating main-street shopping districts, each a little different, surrounded by attractive, livable neighborhoods. These urban centers were filled with treasures: parks and bandstands, memorial libraries, opera houses, local history museums, railroad depots that look like grand central stations in miniature, movie theaters as exciting and lavish in their own way as their big city cousins.... Long after I took leave from the State Division for Historic Preservation, and compiling the list was left to the dedication of others, the inventory of treasures continues to grow.

And the good news is that this is by and large a usable heritage. In the 1960s and 70s, under the rubric of urban renewal, some towns and cities in Vermont and nationwide were clear cut of their old neighborhoods. We have since discovered that old buildings can be put to many exciting new uses-- textile mills have been transformed to condominiums, movie theaters into performing arts centers, old commercial buildings into attractive new retail space, and rundown neighborhoods into quality affordable housing. As a result of these preservation efforts, much of that which makes Vermont, Vermont will survive into next millennium. This legacy is one of the great gifts we are passing on to the next generation.

However around the world, and even here, traditional places oriented to people and not to automobiles, are under constant threat. Twenty first-century Vermonters are being bequeathed a great inheritance by those who have lived in the twentieth century and the many centuries before. They they will need to be dedicated, creative, and diligent to keep this inheritance from slipping away.

Author, and observer of the everyday landscape, Chester Liebs is Professor Emeritus of History and Founder of the Historic Preservation Program at the University of Vermont.